In the China eyewear market, celebrity endorsement can make or break a frame
Sales of glasses and sunglasses are growing in China, but with trends that can change overnight, copycats, and mass-market producers with frames at every price point, independent labels need all the help and ingenuity they can muster
Sporting beautiful clothes is not enough for many of China’s style-conscious consumers, who are turning to eyewear to elevate their look and show off their individuality. And they have a growing selection of fashionable frames to choose from.
Hoping to reach these consumers are a number of independent labels, but even in a growing market, these brands have their work cut out for them.
Euromonitor International reported retail sales of eyewear in China rose 6 per cent to 69.9 billion yuan (US$11 billion) in 2016. Behind this uptick is expanding awareness of the importance of eye health, as well as Korean pop culture and celebrity influence.
In fact, celebrities tend to have major sway over consumers’ purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to sunglasses, according to Euromonitor. And in China’s fast-paced digital environment, the latest celebrity-driven sunglasses craze can change at the drop of a hat.
China’s own mass-market brands stiffen the competition for start-ups and emerging designers. A large proportion of the world’s eyewear is manufactured in China, allowing Chinese companies to keep up with consumer demand by producing thousands of frames a day on a scale that gives shoppers access to the trendiest styles at just about any price point.
“They design anything they can throw at the wall that sticks,” says Sam Waldo, co-founder of Beijing-based independent eyewear brand Mantra.
For a smaller brand to keep up, an abundance of celebrity endorsements can’t hurt. Hong Kong-based designer Percy Lau, of the eponymous eyewear brand, says she has a loyal following in China that was helped when her Dada Child frames were worn by actress Yang Mi.
Lau, who started out with a showroom in Paris and eventually made it into select shops in Los Angeles and Tokyo, also has backing from global personalities such as singer Lady Gaga, who has put her frames in the limelight on social media.
Yet, even with access to a network of A-listers, Lau faces another hurdle: copycats. Chinese factories can quickly reproduce her frames and sell to vendors who price them competitively and accessibly on e-commerce platforms.
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This can prove a particular challenge for designers in an industry where many consumers’ eagerness to buy the latest style overrides authenticity concerns.
Even in a market that can increasingly afford “real” quality products, what makes a high-end handbag or designer dress genuine doesn’t hold as much weight in the realm of eyewear.
Take designer frames like Prada’s, for example – the luxury eyewear brand touts its heritage and high-quality Italian craftsmanship to create a more exclusive, higher-end image in customer’s minds. Yet, Yet Prada does most of its manufacturing in China. Mark-ups that place a product in a high-end market segment tend to reflect perceived brand value rather than a difference in the materials or techniques used to make a frame.
Thus, even discerning shoppers in the premium market “don’t really know anything about what makes a pair of glasses good or bad”, Waldo says.
It means a designer like Lau needs to count on her customers being passionate about supporting original ideas and the individuals behind the brands, as opposed to style-savvy yet faceless companies. That’s a sentiment which, Lau says, is slowly gaining currency in China.
“It’s getting better because we have so many clients coming up to us asking us, ‘Are you selling the real Percy Lau?’ And I say, ‘Of course – I am Percy!’”
Emerging, small-scale, independent labels cite originality and brand story as competitive value propositions for the niche target customer. Waldo’s Mantra, which operates on a “buy one, give one” business model, sells styles with unique acetate patterns that are inspired partly by textiles found in Yunnan province in southwest China, where the company provides prescription glasses for students in rural areas.
“For our designs, we use our own instinct, our own taste, and our target customers around us for inspiration,” says Waldo. “We don’t want to stand too far out and we don’t want to be something that’s unwearable, but at the same time we’re not interested in doing the same as other designer brands.”
Even with an investment in branding – making an effort to illustrate quality by reminding consumers the frames are artisanal, ergonomically designed, and even environmentally friendly – standing out among the competition takes patience.
“Ultimately, it really doesn’t matter how much someone likes the story or needs a new pair of glasses,” says Waldo. “They’re going to try them on and see whether they look good.”